School’s been out a while now for you. After graduating from college you went into the workplace for a few years. Now you’re planning to go back to grad school to obtain an advanced degree – a Masters, an MBA, or perhaps even a PhD.
Over the years, grad school programs have only increased in their competitiveness. The number of applicants has risen, institutional funding has unfortunately been cut – and so the selection process has become more rigorous. Getting into these programs is hard for everyone, but especially so for graduated professionals who are out of the academic loop.
What are the hurdles?
Most online resources will tell you that the basic timeline for grad school applications should begin 1.5 to 2 years before the actual submission deadline. Full-time professionals may need to have a much longer timeline than that, simply because the individual must balance applications (which are time-consuming) with holding down a full-time job and all its associated commitments. Your schedule will be more inflexible than the undergraduates’ – you can’t just drop into a professor’s office and chat for five minutes about their letter of recommendation. Revising for the GRE will therefore also take longer, as will drafting and re-drafting your personal statement.
How can these hurdles be overcome?
One of the best ways that an admissions committee can determine an applicant’s aptitude for graduate study is to receive a letter of recommendation from a faculty member telling them the ways in which the applicant is qualified for graduate study. Professional letters from current or past employers will tell them just as much about the applicant’s skills … but without that crucial reference point within academia, applicants may struggle. If you want to get into grad school then you should aim for at least two academic recommendations.
Of course, this is difficult if you’ve been out of school for a while, and approaching former professors can be quite intimidating. As soon as you are contemplating graduate study it would be wise to send a friendly email to your former academic contacts, updating them on your career, letting them know of your intentions and requirement for letters of recommendations.
As mentioned above, given that you’ve spent time in the workforce, admissions committees will be looking for proof that your subject knowledge has remained fresh and that you’ve retained your aptitude for study. This is where the General Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and Subject GREs come in. They are the ways to calibrate all applicants and gain an understanding of academic abilities. Because the GRE is only a number generated from a standardized test, it is regarded by some admissions committees and faculty as the least important part of the grad school application. That is a valid assumption to make, but the GRE scores are frequently used as a quick way to eliminate applicants from the large initial pile of applicants. For this reason, the GRE General & Subject should be taken seriously – all applicants should aim for scores above the 50th percentile to make sure that their applications won’t be immediately disqualified.
Time is of the essence
Fortunately, revising for GRE tests doesn’t require exile for hours in the library at a time. The General GRE itself is administrated on a computer; many of the specialist prep materials are available as software programs; and the best laptops have fast processors and good battery life, allowing prospective students to study or work anywhere. Test revision might have to be done over 30 minutes of your lunch break every day; your holidays might have to be spent poring over your nth ‘Statement of Purpose’ draft … but with enough advanced scheduling it all can be fit in.
It is tough to get into graduate school as a professional, but it’s tough for everyone else right now too. Plan your application process as far ahead as you can, and you shouldn’t be at a major disadvantage. Good luck!